March 26, 2002


In the Political Party Ring, It's Fearless Frodo vs. Pathetic Piggy (Ronald Brownstein, March 25 2002, LA Times)
It's not as tangible an asset as money or good poll numbers. But for a political party, confidence--in its message, its ideas, even its mission--is usually a critical ingredient of success in an election year. Right now, the confidence gap may be the biggest difference between the parties. Just over seven months before the midterm elections, Republicans are swaggering. Democrats look lost.

Republican candidates for the House and Senate already appear to have settled on the central messages they'll trumpet in this fall's campaigns: Defend President Bush's tax cut; endorse his call for big spending increases on defense and homeland security; and, above all, link themselves to Bush's popularity, particularly the public support for his handling of the terrorist threat.


Democrats don't have nearly as much direction. In theory, they have settled on a two-part election-year strategy: embrace Bush on the war and challenge him on domestic issues.

The Democrats task here seems impossible--to, on the one hand, say they support the president and believe in the importance of the war, while on the other hand asking the American people to hamstring him by removing his party from power in Congress. It is not helpful in this regard that their putative leader, Tom Daschle, has made several incoherent statements that, while they may be perfectly acceptable expressions of dissent, call into question whether Democrats really do support the vigorous prosecution of an expansive war.

One would expect that the GOP can't actually gain seats because that would violate historic trends for the party in power in mid-term elections. But there is real danger here for Democrats, especially their incumbent Senators from states that Bush carried two years ago. To the extent that the national party succeeds in separating itself from a president who's riding at over 80% in the polls and probably higher in these battleground states, they will necessarily be separating their most vulnerable candidates from their own constituents. The typical reaction of politicians in this situation is to in turn try to separate themselves from their party. This is always disastrous, as witness the efforts of various now-retired Republicans to distance themselves from Newt Gingrich and impeachment. These efforts create a dissonance that ends up doing more damage to their own candidacies and to the party in general.

Compounding their problem is the sad fact that the post-Clinton Democratic Party doesn't seem to have any core beliefs. Bill Clinton's Triangulation, or Third Way, which involved co-opting Republican issues and opposing Democratic orthodoxy, proved an effective way of putting himself in power and staying there, but not surprisingly leaves the Party with almost nothing to differentiate itself from the Republicans. After eight years of sucking up to business and embracing free trade, while pronouncing the end of the era of big government, what is left of the great liberal Democrat agenda other than environmentalism (where they're challenged by the Greens), racial quotas (though they've already secured the black vote, seemingly in perpetuity), permissiveness on social issues, and an addiction to high taxes? These positions may well serve to lock in the Democrat base but would appear to make it extremely difficult to appeal to the vast American middle.

Navigating the treacherous course ahead would require some extraordinarily adept leadership. The Democrats are led by Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and Terry McAuliffe. 'Nuff said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 26, 2002 8:12 AM
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